Today is a doozy: Facebook and Twitter decided that their users shouldn’t see or be able to read a particular article in the New York Post, and why so many Democrats perceived the Post story as a traumatic flashback to former FBI director James Comey’s letter about Hillary Clinton on October 28, 2016.
‘There Is No Credible Reason for This Kind of Targeted Suppression’
The editors of National Review have something important to say about the way two of the largest and most prominent social-media companies, Facebook and Twitter, decided to effectively block access to a news article in the New York Post.
Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications manager (and, per his bio, a former staffer for Barbara Boxer, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the House Majority PAC), announced that the social-media giant would begin “reducing” the “distribution” of a New York Post investigation into emails purporting that Joe Biden met with a top executive from the Ukrainian natural-gas firm Burisma Holdings at the behest of his son Hunter Biden.
Instead of simply asking pertinent questions, or debunking the Post’s reporting, a media blackout was initiated. A number of well-known journalists warned colleagues and their sizable social-media audiences not to share the story.
By the afternoon, Twitter had joined Facebook in suppressing the article, not only barring its users from sharing it with followers, but barring them sharing it through direct messages as well. It locked the accounts of White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, the Post, and many others for retweeting the story.
There is no credible reason for this kind of targeted suppression. Over the past five years there have been scores of dramatic scoops written by major media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN that were based on faulty information provided by unknown sources that turned out to be incorrect. Not once has Facebook or Twitter concerned itself with the sourcing methods of reporters. Not once did it censor any of those pieces.
The editors conclude the mentality at work in the high commands of Facebook and Twitter “further damages the reputation of Big Tech. For another, it renders the industry more susceptible to a new regulatory regime already being championed by some in Congress. Mostly, however, it just makes the story they’re trying to suppress a far bigger deal.”
Last night, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey offered a tweet conceding, “our communication around our actions on the New York Post article was not great. And blocking URL sharing via tweet or DM with zero context as to why we’re blocking: unacceptable.”
The images contained in the articles include personal and private information — like email addresses and phone numbers — which violate our rules. As noted this morning, we also currently view materials included in the articles as violations of our Hacked Materials Policy. Commentary on or discussion about hacked materials, such as articles that cover them but do not include or link to the materials themselves, aren’t a violation of this policy. Our policy only covers links to or images of hacked material themselves. We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner. We should provide additional clarity and context when preventing the Tweeting or DMing of URLs that violate our policies.
If you believe that news organizations should never publish anything that was not legally obtained or distributed, you would bar the publication of the Pentagon Papers and President Trump’s tax returns.
Note that according to the New York Post, the information wasn’t “hacked” by any traditional definition: “The email is contained in a trove of data that the owner of a computer repair shop in Delaware said was recovered from a MacBook Pro laptop that was dropped off in April 2019 and never retrieved. The computer was seized by the FBI, and a copy of its contents made by the shop owner shared with The Post this week by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.”
In fact, the dynamic at work in the New York Post story about the emails regarding Biden is the same as the New York Times scoop about the president’s tax returns. That computer repair shop in Delaware has legal access to the files in the computer (because they were presumably hired by the FBI to fix something) but not legal authority to distribute what’s in those files. The New York Times’ source has legal access to the president’s tax returns, but not legal authority to distribute what’s in those tax returns. There is no moral distinction, just a partisan one.
The distinction between being a “platform” and being a publisher is impossible to ignore, and the longtime insistence from those big tech companies that they’re not publishers is no longer operable. For years, they insisted they were no more responsible for what gets written on Facebook then the people who build bathroom stall walls are for someone writing “for a good time call Jenny at 867-5309.”
The spectacularly wrongheaded decision-making at Facebook and Twitter is going to set off a lot of deliberately obtuse semantic arguments about whether or not what the companies did can legitimately be labeled “censorship,” driven by those who insist that only government actions can constitute censorship.
As we all know and are unnecessarily reminded every time one of these controversies comes down the pike, Facebook and Twitter are private companies. Users sign on to operate under the companies’ rules and judgment. The U.S. Constitution does not guarantee you a right to speak your mind on a private company’s online platform. If you go to the New York Times and say, “I have a terrific and important freelance article or op-ed or letter to the editor,” and the Times declines to run your submission in its pages, no one believes they’ve been censored.
But the companies touted themselves as neutral, minimally restrictive “platforms” and have, year by year, morphed into publishers with broader (and vaguer) limitations on what can be posted and shared on their sites. As I wrote back in 2018, when Apple, Google, Facebook, and Spotify erased most of the posts and videos on their services from raving lunatic/radio- and web-show host Alex Jones, “none of the people who run these companies are constitutional scholars specializing in First Amendment cases, nor did they ever aspire to be in that role. They set up and joined these companies to make money — and now they’re in the weird position of American Public Discourse Police.”
Facebook’s slogan used to be, “make the world more open and connected.” Twitter’s slogan was, “see what’s happening.” They sold themselves on the notion that you could have a platform, and “make your voice heard,” no matter who you were. They clearly envisioned a society full of pleasant, relatively polite stamp collectors and poodle owners and wildlife photographers and Trekkies, groups of individuals who would want to connect and share their passions and who would do so in an amiable, harmonious, focus-group-pleasing way that could never harm others.
Except society isn’t just made up of nice people with noncontroversial interests and hobbies. Our world has more than a few lunatics, hate groups, conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, violent criminals, and every other unsavory type, and much to the surprise of these companies, they want their voices heard, too! They may be particularly driven to share their views online, because people are so unreceptive to their views when they share them offline.
And for a long while, most people didn’t mind Facebook and Twitter and the rest taking a tougher stance to remove lunatics, hate groups, conspiracy theorists, Holocaust deniers, violent criminals, etc. Although sometimes the line between the dangerously unacceptable and simply odd or outlandish is hard to draw. QAnon is a nutty conspiracy theory, but so is the idea that Trump has been an asset of Russian intelligence since 1987. Smart, seemingly normal people can buy into conspiracy theories.
Now that they’ve built their user base, Facebook and Twitter and other social-media companies want to change the rules. They want to limit what sorts of political news stories can be shared, which was never how they sold themselves or what they promised. No one complains about the New York Times refusing to publish a letter to the editor, because the Times never sold itself as “the place where everyone has a voice and everyone gets a chance to speak their mind.”
They might as well update the user agreement language: “User agrees to believe all denials from Joe Biden regarding anything involving his son’s international business partners.”
The Traumatic Flashbacks of Comey’s Letter
Why did the tech companies, and quite a few big names in mainstream journalism, go to DefCon One on a story with evidence suggesting Biden lied about meeting a Ukrainian politician?
Allow me to suggest that yesterday, a lot of people had flashbacks to FBI director James Comey sending a letter to Congress announcing the reopening of the email probe on October 28, 2016, eleven days before the November 8 election.
The fact that President Trump’s margin over Hillary Clinton was so narrow — he won Michigan by 10,704 votes, Pennsylvania by 49,543 votes, and Wisconsin by 27,257 votes — means that any one factor can plausibly be labeled the decisive one. Many Democrats reacted to Clinton’s shocking loss by looking for the most convenient explanation possible. For some, it was Russian disinformation on social media. For others, it was Jill Stein siphoning off votes that Hillary Clinton deserved. For others, it was that the country was full of racist “deplorables,” even though many of these voters had just cast ballots for Barack Obama twice.
But I suspect quite a few Democrats chose to believe that it was Comey’s letter which decided the election. Never mind that Comey wrote another letter, two days before the election, declaring that the reopened investigation had found nothing new or incriminating. (Yes, 24 million Americans cast early ballots in 2016, but that’s out of 136 million total votes in the presidential election.)
This is one of the reasons political journalism matters. What happens is important; what we choose to learn from what happens is almost as important. Many elite progressives chose to learn the lesson that “late-breaking news stories that look bad for the Democrat can elect the worst Republican in the world,” and thus that scenario must be prevented, at any cost.
If a person believes that a big scoop involving the FBI looking into emails of the Democratic nominee led to Trump’s election . . . how do you think they will react to the New York Post announcing this week they have a big scoop involving the FBI looking into emails of the Democratic nominee?
ADDENDUM: In the middle of all this, keep in mind that Joe Biden does not believe that Burisma was attempting to influence U.S. policy when they hired his son, that his son was hired on his own merits, and not because his father was vice president, but “because he’s a very bright guy.”